The environmental math of going vegan — and more
Since the Climate Coach column launched in January, youve asked a lot of questions on chats, podcasts and social media. This week, Ill share some answers. Ive gathered up a few of our exchanges, lightly edited for brevity and clarity, and offered some responses to your big questions about everything from going vegan to building better batteries. Have more? Keep the questions coming. Write to email@example.com and subscribe to the newsletter here . Hi, Climate Coach. My question is: Does living a vegan lifestyle make any difference at all, especially since few people live this way? Thank you. Sal Garcia on PostReports podcast Lets start with the big picture: People have a tendency to jump to extremes. Its either vegan or bust. And given that most Americans arent vegan or vegetarian only about 5 percent, estimates Gallup its not that useful to cast this in absolutes. The 80:20 rule applies here: You can get about 80 percent of the results for about 20 percent of the effort. In this case, even a small change in diet can lead to a big reduction in emissions. Thats not to play down what vegans are doing. Its just to say that when you run the numbers, you can have enormous impact with a small amount of effort. To give you an example, when you look at the sources of greenhouse gas in the average Americans diet, theyre mostly meat and dairy. About 57 percent, give or take, comes from meat and 18 percent from dairy. So thats 75 percent of your dietary emissions right there. And from a climate perspective, not all meat is created equal. Beef is nearly seven times more emissions-intensive than chicken, for example. To zoom out, if you think theres not much positive climate impact without a vegan or vegetarian diet, it isnt true. Whats more accurate is thinking about the small changes you can make to have substantial impact. There are some mind-blowing numbers that have come out of a 2021 study in the journal Nature Food . University of Michigan researchers collected data from a vast set of epidemiological studies looking at the global burden of disease. The question they asked was: What is the health and environmental burden of individual foods? They looked at the impact of about 6,000 types of foods common in the U.S. diet. When they ran the numbers, they found a remarkable effect. Substituting just 10 percent of daily caloric intake from beef and processed meats with fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes or even seafood had more than just profound health effects. It also slashed the carbon footprint of the average American by about one-third. So youre getting massive impact from a very small change. As for the impact of going vegan, watch the Climate Coach column for more details on that. I am in the market for a new car and have been thinking about electric/hybrid options. I am wondering about the environmental, cradle-to-grave impact of EV batteries. I read once that people were overjoyed at the environmentally clean benefit of switching to cars from horse-drawn carriages/buggies, as there had been a problem with horse poop on the streets. We know how that worked out lots of unintended, negative environmental impacts from cars in the long run. Are we fooling ourselves about the true impact of batteries? Hilary on The Posts live chat Youre correct: New Yorks city leaders were once concerned the city would be up to its ears in horse manure as its population swelled in the early 1900s only to be rescued by automobiles ( many of which were electric ). Cars have created many of their own lethal and unintended consequences. So we shouldnt expect EVs to be any different if we dont make an effort to avoid these unintended problems. Here are the major issues to look out for: If we did nothing to manage these risks, wed face some real problems. But briefly, heres the target: A nearly closed-loop system in which all batteries are either reused for example, as stationary batteries to back up the electric grid or recovered and refurbished for use in new cars. The good news is most of the battery materials retain their value. Ive spoken with battery companies that are already designing their products to be recycled and reused. The economics arent quite there yet, and the regulations are lagging. But were moving in the right direction. We still need to see a lot more progress at the mining and extraction stage. Its an international dilemma thats far from solved. Hi, Im 19 years old. As a college student living in dorms, how can I live sustainably and make a bigger impact other than doing things like turning off the lights or taking shorter showers? Giselle Korn on PostReports podcast We often fall into the trap of doing many small things rather than thinking about doing fewer things that have greater impact. You referred to actions like turning off the lights and recycling. Both are good for the environment and theres plenty of evidence to support that. Overall, they have a positive effect. But lets take the lights for a moment: LEDs use 90 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs. While lighting used to be around 10 percent of our household energy bill , today its basically a rounding error. Does that mean you should waste energy? No. But does turning off the lights rise to the top of the list? It does not. There are a couple of buckets to think about when trying to cut your emissions. On average, housing, transportation and stuff you buy each account for about a third of your emissions, while food accounts for around 15 percent, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists . But as a college student, youre probably living in one of the least-consumptive periods of your life. Where can you get the biggest bang for your buck? There are two things you can do instead of thinking too much about your precise emissions: One is to focus on creating habits and practices that will serve you for the rest of your life. That will have a more lasting impact than trying to nickel and dime your fuel mileage driving around town with your friends. Ask yourself: Are you comfortable biking around campus? Is it easy to try out a plant - first diet? Are you really happy with the relatively small amount of stuff you have? Do you want to get involved in political action? Theres no better time to experiment with the kind of life you want to lead than right now. Youll find out things you probably dont expect. This might change your priorities in ways likely to reduce your emissions in the future. As you get older, changing habits or finding the time to try new things will be harder to do. Trust me. And if you let them, there are many energy-intensive things that will shape your life by default such as big cars that may not necessarily make you healthier or happier. I wish, for example, I hadnt given up using my bike as a regular way to travel in college. It took me several years to rediscover biking as one of the best ways to get around my city. Ten years from now, whatever youre doing will probably have an outsize impact compared to the college life of sleeping in a dorm, eating from the buffet and traveling around campus. By locking in low-carbon habits now, or at least experimenting with them, you can have more impact in the future. The second thing is to become what social scientists call norm entrepreneurs. Think of yourself as a walking billboard for how the world could be. Humans are really good at copying each other, but they often need permission or social support to do something different. Riding your bicycle to class doesnt have that much impact on its own. Youre saving a few gallons of gas, at most. However, hundreds of students seeing you commute by bike each day is powerful. And when people join you, even if just a handful, that starts to build momentum not just to ride, but to create safe biking infrastructure that encourages even more people to ride, and so on. There are plenty of examples of how changing norms gives permission to others to follow by saying, This is something thats desirable or cool or acceptable. It can be a tough job or a fun one. But if youre in college, its probably one of the most high-impact things you can do.